The government tried Tuesday to play down the impact of North Korea firing a surface-to-ship missile into the Sea of Japan, saying launches of short-range missiles do not violate the Pyongyang Declaration.

Under the declaration, signed between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in September, North Korea vowed to continue its moratorium on ballistic missile launches.

“We understand that North Korea fired a ground-to-ship missile from its northeast coast,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda confirmed Tuesday.

Fukuda said the government learned of the launch through intelligence-gathering efforts on Monday. However, neither Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi nor key members of his Cabinet, including Fukuda himself, were informed of the incident until Tuesday morning, as Defense

Agency officials had apparently dismissed the scenario as nothing more than a routine drill.

He said the launch “does not pose a threat to Japan’s security,” as the missile only has a range of about 100 km and landed in North Korean waters.

“Such a short-range missile does not fall within the scope of the Pyongyang Declaration,” he said. “What we have in mind under the declaration is a ballistic missile that is clearly intended to attack another country.”

In 1998, North Korea test launched a ballistic missile, believed to have been a Taepodong-1, which flew over the Japanese archipelago and landed in the Pacific.

Under the Pyongyang Declaration, North Korea promised to comply with all related international agreements on nuclear and missile issues, and to maintain the moratorium beyond the originally agreed date of 2003.

The latest launch came on the eve of the inauguration of South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, but Fukuda declined to be drawn out on whether he believes it was yet another sign of Pyongyang’s brinkmanship.

“It is highly likely that the missile was launched as part of military drills, which North Korea holds several times a year,” Fukuda said.

Koichi Furusho, chief of staff of the Maritime Self-Defense Force, said at a separate meeting that he considers the launch to have been part of routine drills, adding that the MSDF has not taken any new security precautions since the launch.

A government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tokyo has a policy of ignoring provocation from Pyongyang.

“It’s better not to make a fuss over it,” the source said. “We are intentionally taking a low-key attitude to the issue.”

Fukuda said North Korea did not issue advance notice of the planned launch, although another government source said earlier that the Japan Coast Guard received a warning from North Korea prior to the launch of danger in waters where it landed.

Several Japanese government sources also said they have received information that North Korea would launch another missile Wednesday.

Fukuda said information on such incidents has to move faster.

“I have ordered related ministries to report to the Cabinet secretariat as soon as they receive such information, given that the world’s attention is focused on North Korea’s security situation,” Fukuda said.

Although government officials tried to play down the launch, Tokyo stocks fell sharply Tuesday, with the Nikkei average suffering as investors unloaded shares following reports of the incident.

The 225-issue Nikkei average slid 204.46 points, or 2.39 percent, to close at 8,360.49, having briefly dropped at one stage to 8,324.70.

This was near the Nov. 14 close of 8,303.39, the lowest close since March 25, 1983, when the index finished the day at 8,302.77.

Several members of the Liberal Democratic Party meanwhile voiced concern over Japan’s crisis management facilities and demanded that they be re-examined.

“How does Japan protect its people? Is it all right to remain in this situation and have no way to respond?” said former Defense Agency chief Hosei Norota, urging the LDP to consider establishing an internal research organization on crisis management.

“Japan’s crisis management is extremely undependable,” said Hisaoki Kamei, former head of the National Land Agency. “I would like the party to steadfastly tackle the issue and work to clarify responsibilities and centralize crisis management.”

Yoshihiko Noda, of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, described the firing of the missile as “behavior that deals the finishing blow” to the joint declaration, which he said has been stripped of its meaning since Pyongyang announced that it had withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Hirohisa Fujii, secretary general of the Liberal Party, said, “Although we must closely investigate the issue with the countries concerned, if the missile was fired, we must file a serious protest.”

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